la mano

by daniel ramirez

A crowd of people, about half unknown to me, semi-circle a rectangular pit, walls geometrically straight. The fringes of the canopy flap while bangs flutter across eyes. Velvet drapes the family section. Mexico-bound semis whoosh the highway a few hundred yards away. Sun pours forth, gracefully warming the people who choose to stand outside the shade. You almost have to be thankful for the mercy of death in our mild season and not in the middle of a south Texas summer. Except for a different priest and a few of the old ones donning masks, the scene was remarkably similar to the one just over two decades before, when her husband passed away. She will be buried right beside him after all.

Beside the casket, dirt mounds up. A green tarp covers it but doesn’t contain its tumbled spill. If not combined with the sandy aggregate of the coast to our east, it would be completely black. Instead, it is dusky grey. It’s stuck together in clay clumps. Not the type that crumbles under pressure but that requires effort to crack it into smaller and smaller clods.

A smaller clod ends up in my mouth. It’s gluey and underwhelmingly minerally. I keep it on my tongue. Even bathed in saliva, it doesn’t crumble. It dissolves like a hard lozenge. A remedy for grief?

There’s something particularly beautiful about the custom of sprinkling dirt atop a casket. Those that accompanied them in life now participate in their passing to a new one. Personally, I can’t think of a higher honor than contributing the material that will turn them back into earth, our timeless source of comfort.

This time, though, some funeral home man holds a clear plastic canister with tan sand for us to scoop out. They want us to sprinkle that on her casket when there’s a perfectly good pile of dirt right beside her? Actually, it’s more than perfectly good. It’s the only appropriate thing to put on top. Without this dirt, the person in that casket would not be here. Without this dirt, I would not be here. The least I can do is honor her with it, and so I do. I take a little clod of the dark clay and break it up as much as possible. With my right hand I sprinkle a pinch of sand from the canister, and when the funeral home man isn’t looking, I sprinkle dirt with my left hand.

It is the fill for my grandmother’s grave. I call her Güela. Some call her Lala. Despite a few years of rapid deterioration, she lived a full life to 94. It was not too long ago she was still at the helm of the piñata cord, yanking away children’s dreams with vigor. Her father made it even closer to 100. I’m encouraged to have her genes within me.

Bishop, Texas, could be the poster child of rural American blight. To pass through is to view a scene of dilapidation — boarded windows, weeds cracking concrete, caved-in ceilings, vegetation growing out of roofs. It had a heyday though, back when commodity agriculture needed hands. When it was people, not machines, that did the work. Main street once thrived — dime stores, tailors, a bank. It’s almost as if time could be measured here Pre-Combine and In the Year of the Combine.

Its setting is almost featureless, but there is one major newcomer punctuating its skies. Almost blasphemous to petroleum-loving Texans, wind turbines are everywhere. With the area’s proximity to the coast, there is a reliable breeze. Or maybe we’ll just take power in whatever form is abundant. Staring at the wheeling blades is an easy route to hypnosis, just make sure you’re not in the driver’s seat. The futuristic towers are especially stark in such an empty landscape. It is so flat that, as long as your gaze faces some easterly direction, the horizon undoubtedly touches ocean.

The flat defines the area’s other main physical characteristic: row after row after row after row after row after row after row of farm field. These rows are the product of that dark clay dirt. Nowadays, they may be comprised of corn or milo (sorghum used as feed), but they are just as likely to house cotton. It was that pillowy crop that brought people here to settle. Or in our case, to follow its northward budding, only to come back here as home base.

She would often long to return to this home since the early parts of her life required her to be uprooted. The constant pursuit of another fruiting field led them down long highways, where, at the end, was only a cramped shack. It was in one of these that her first child was born. So when the time came, all she wanted was to stay put. To have a place to call her own.

Even well into her advanced dementia, she pleaded to go home. It was the type of plea that ached those that brought her to assisted living. The type of plea that, on the surface, did not seem to match the condition of that pier-and-beam house itself, over 60 years old. But the house she longed for was as much comprised of memory as physical substance. The one where my father was born. Where his bronzed baby shoes still sat on a shelf. Where she stood by her daughter and husband in a quinceañera photo on the wall. With portraits of numerous other offspring. Where Jesus sat blessing the seder meal that he shared with his Apostles. With its brown shag carpet. That in the back had a shady bench swing, a corroded pit smoker, and the piquin bushes that were the source of a painful salsa. No longer needing to be transient, all she wanted was to stay put. Wouldn’t you? After all, it was her husband who’d built that house with his own hands.

When I think of Güela, perhaps the most prominent feature I envision is her hands. As her grandson, I only knew them when they were knuckly and gnarled. But ask anybody, and they’ll agree that they were always occupied. They scrubbed. They folded. They planted. They chopped. They stitched. They crocheted. They didn’t abide idleness. I was the lucky recipient of many of their products. Their hats have warmed my head in cooler climes. Their quilts have comforted my resting body.

What delighted me most about those hands was the way they grabbed a pin to roll out dough for tortillas — always flour. The kind that get pockmarked amber to tell you they’re done and that powder your hands and face. There’s not a tortilla more delicious than one rolled out on your abuela’s countertop and roasted on her comal. And every morning we stayed with her, she would fill them with chorizo con huevo, the house-filled scent more pleasant than any alarm-clock buzzer.

Around the same table where we partook of her breakfast, Güela would play Lotería with us. She was well-known in Bishop for being an avid Bingo player. It was no Bingo for amateurs. It’s the kind played with a spread of cards for each round and a lineup of daubers. Her cumulative rewards probably outstrip my yearly salary. My siblings and I still call out her trademark “vin-GO” victory call. Still, she’d condescend to play that child’s game with us. She’d dole out dried frijoles for us to mark our boxes. I was always drawn to the people on those cards. El Apache fascinated me. I was afraid of the knife-wielding valiente. I always wondered what a catrín was? Now, the one that sticks out most: La Mano.

She arrived in Bishop many decades ago to put her hands to work. In the surrounding expanse of fields, she picked and lifted and dragged and hauled. She was responsible for harvesting that raw material that would clothe and comfort so many of us, the going rate a dollar per hundred pounds. For a plant associated with cushioning, raw hands bled against spiny stems. But be careful — blood taints the product. This, done in the middle of a Texas summer. I repeat, done in the middle of a Texas summer. If she got a few bills in her pockets, some got storehouses and compresses and train cars for her labor. Those she brought into the world were not exempt from the toil. Facing a situation of economic need, her children picked with their hands just like her.

When the combine thresher showed up, their hands were freed up for other tasks — pouring concrete, slaughtering chickens, ironing dress shirts, pushing the buttons of a cash register, writing on a blackboard, placing a stethoscope against a patient’s heart. Our story, however, starts with that dirt. No, a sprinkling of exotic sand    just    won’t    do.

As she’s lowered into the ground to be covered by it and eventually overtaken by it, we mourn the loss of our abuela. We mourn a mamá, a tía, a hermana, a bisabuela también. With her hands she gathered the material that comforted a nation. With her hands she nurtured new generations that would educate and heal a nation. Before her casket was closed, her hands clasped her most prized possessions — a prayer book and rosary. These are the hands that built a nation. Of course they’re knuckly and gnarled.



Daniel Ramirez is a writer, aspiring puppeteer, and educator of youth from San Antonio, Texas. His environmental journalism has appeared at StateImpact Texas and his personal essays at Twisted Vine and Foliate Oak.